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Audubon special tracks down rare ferret. Series now ranks among TV's finest wildlife programs

One of the world's most endangered species -- and, perhaps, one of the most endearing -- is examined in the June edition of a wildlife series that is rapidly becoming one of television's most valuable guides to our natural heritage: ``The World of Audubon.'' The Mysterious Black-footed Ferret concerns this rare mammal that was thought to be extinct until one was discovered in 1981 on the Pitchfork Ranch near Meeteetse, Wyo., by a ranch dog named Shep.

``The World of Audubon,'' in its informal person-to-person style, chats with Shep's owner so that viewers can share personally in the find. (Show airs on WTBS/Cable, Thursday, June 5, 9:05-10:05 p.m.; repeated June 17 at 10:20 p.m., June 22 at 1:05 p.m., and June 29 at 6:05 p.m.)

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``Ferret,'' narrated by Loretta Swit of ``M*A*S*H,'' concentrates on the nocturnal habits of the animal and its primary prey, the prairie dog, using infrared night cameras and sometimes even glaring lights, which do not seem to bother the animals. There is charming footage of them frolicking in the prairie and stopping their delightful games now and then to forage for food.

Scientists have been tagging the remaining ferrets in order to figure out ways to preserve the species, which has been ravaged by canine distemper.

It is estimated that there may be as few as three black-foots in the wild, as naturalists try to breed the half dozen in captivity. In an afterword to the special, Miss Swit explains that even some of those have recently died, so there is a great urgency to breed the few remaining creatures.

Christopher Palmer, executive producer, says that the role man is playing in trying to save the black-footed ferret is ``a prime example of how man can help the animal kingdom. Unlike `Condor' [the previous Audubon special], where the great bird's plight was caused primarily by man, the black-footed ferret is threatened by natural causes. And man is the species' only chance for survival.''

``Ferret'' will be syndicated later this summer on broadcast stations and will probably be shown later this year on PBS.

It is coproduced by National Audubon Society, Turner Broadcasting System, and WETA of Washington.

It is further proof that the Audubon series deserves a place in television's splendid wildlife triumvirate alongside ``Nature'' and ``National Geographic Specials.''

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Arthur Unger is the Monitor's television critic.

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